Scripture Reading: Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
Over the last few weeks I’ve been involved with a good number of conversations in a variety of company which I think I can summarize down to a simple question. “How do we deal with people who are clearly living in sin?”
That topic of which sin has varied. It’s been things like: living together before marriage, sexual relationships, abusive relationships, adultery, divorce and alcoholism to name a number of them.
It hasn’t been the type of conversation you might expect. Often these conversations in the church are heavy with condemnation and judgement, at least that’s how the media wants us to believe they are all about.
The conversations I’ve been having are with those who love people who are living in these types of perceived sin, whatever it might be, and some of them have been with people themselves are struggling with these sins in their lives right now.
People have been asking about what God thinks about these sins. People are asking how the church should respond to these sins.
These discussions have been in no way judgemental. Which has been very exciting for me. In fact they have been very loving and caring as those I’ve been talking to really want to understand how God, and in turn the church, can deal with these sins, which are so prevalent in our society, in a helpful and life-giving way. Let’s face it, we live in a society which sees many of these things as “normal” and have no issue with anything at all.
How’s that saying go? “If it feels good, do it!”
But is that what God really wants for us?
It’s part of the debate in the church, well pretty much since the beginning. Last week we looked at the Apostles having a council meeting in Jerusalem where they were debating what it means to belong to the church. Do those who want to be part of the church, do they need to follow the Law of Moses? In turn, they decided that the Gentiles did not need to live by the Law because scripture tells us that Jesus has come for everyone.
Today we’ve jumped into the book of Galatians, a letter written by Paul to a church he planted in the city. It is a Gentile church, and is one of the churches that would have been part of the debate in Acts 15 that we looked at last week. These Gentiles (a word meaning someone who isn’t Jewish) do not live by the Law of Moses, but have been won over by the love of Jesus Christ shown in Paul and others. They have been transformed into followers.
This letter is written after the council meeting in Jerusalem, and we are getting a taste of frustration from Paul, because it seems that even though the council made a decision, not everyone is in agreement.
Paul began his ministry travelling with a man by the name of Barnabas. Together they were preaching and converting people in Gentile cities. But it seems they had a falling out and have gone their separate ways.
In Paul’s letter, he seems a bit ticked off… we’ll call it passionate. This is not one of his more pastoral letters. He writes of confrontations with Cephas (who is Peter, this is the Aramaic translation of his name), it seems there’s strong division between Paul and Barnabas, and it sounds like it’s a bit of a falling out after the decision made by the council around who follows the Law. So Paul is passionately stating his position for the Galatian church.
But Paul begins his by telling a bit about his journey. He tells about his days as Saul, and being one who was well regarded in Judaism for his knowledge and his passion. He was so passionate about Judaism that he was a leader in the movement to persecute early Christians for not upholding Jewish traditions. Since all early followers of Jesus were Jewish, he was quite busy trying to shut them and their churches down.
So what happened? Why the change of heart?
Paul tells us today in Galatians 1:15-16,
“… God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…”
Simply, God had other plans for Paul. A man who was once a great persecutor of people who failed to follow the Law of Moses, Paul is now an advocate for those who cannot follow those laws.
And he built many, many churches among the Gentiles.
So if they aren’t going to follow the Law of Moses in these churches, what rules are they going to live by?
So often we like to decide who is part of us by watching what they do. Do they do all the things we think a person like us should do? For the early church, their measure was how well someone followed Jewish Law. But that wasn’t working out too well, because even Jews were having trouble following the Law.
And it sounds like some powerful people were not pleased with the decision to forgo the Law among Gentile churches, so much so that people like Peter were afraid of them.
Following the Law had become a checklist of items that we need to do or not do in order to get into heaven. It was more like an instruction manual than what God had intended it to be, namely a relationship with Him.
Peter gets to the heart of his views on this debate in Galatians 2:16 where he says,
“… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
This leads us to the question, what does it take to be saved? And by saved, I mean what does it take to ensure we have our place in God’s kingdom? How do we know?
We know when we’re saved.
So how do we get saved?
Does it mean we follow the Laws? Does it mean we check everything off on the list?
Or, does it mean we enter into a deep relationship with God through His Son?
I don’t think I need to tell you the answer to this. Of course it’s about our relationship with God!
What happened with Paul when he was saved? Let’s see what he has to say in Galatians 2:19-20.
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Paul does not see how anyone can be saved by the Law. According to him we can only be saved through a relationship with Jesus Christ. He goes so far to say that he died and it is Christ who lives in him.
What does that mean for us?
When Paul says he died, and Christ now lives in him, it simply means he is a new man. His old, sinful ways are gone.
No longer does Paul persecute the church. No longer does he condemn Christians and put them to death. Paul is a true servant of God because he had a personal encounter with his risen Saviour, Jesus Christ. The one same Saviour who can live in us today as well.
Paul never met Jesus while he was alive. Jesus had died, was resurrected and had gone back to the his Father’s kingdom before Paul came on the scene. Sometimes we like to think it’d be a lot easier if we could meet Jesus in person and let him transform and renew our lives. But Paul never met Jesus when he was alive either.
Paul was the biggest opponent of the church when he was in his prime as a leader among the Jews. But one day he was walking down the road and Jesus revealed himself to Paul and changed his life in an instant.
If God could turn a life like that around… imagine what he could do with the rest of us!
In what we are looking at from his letter today, Paul is encouraging the church to live for Christ. He’s telling them to forget what others are saying. Forget that there are expectations being placed on them by the hierarchy of the church. Forget all that.
Forget it, because it is only Jesus Christ who saves.
Not laws. Not rules. Not denominations. Not boards. Not presbyteries or bishops. Not popes or presidents. Only Jesus Christ saves.
To apply this to the various discussions I’ve been having around sin, sin that has normalized itself in the world, like what I mentioned earlier, here’s the conclusion I’ve been working towards. And in some ways I’m still formulating it, so this is a bit of a rough draft…
“If we want to change the world we need to let Christ change us first.”
If we want the world to turn away from its sin and embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of all things, then we need to act like we believe it ourselves. I’m not entirely sure we’ve done a good job of this. And I’m not referring to any particular church, but I’m pointing at Christianity in general.
Some churches like to stand like they are high and mighty pointing out all the sin in other people’s lives. But they ignore their own sin, which simply makes people turn away because who likes a hypocrite?
If we want to be faithful witnesses of God’s love in the world, then we need to get our own house in order first. We need to let Jesus Christ speak into our lives and transform us, not so we can point out the sin of others, but because others will see the good things God is doing in our own lives so that they will want what we have too.
Does this make sense at all?
If we expect people to live as God is calling us to live, turning from our sin, whatever that looks like… then we need to live as though it’s happening in us.
And you know what? We can’t fake it either. People will see right through it a mile away.
If people can’t see our passion for Jesus, if people can’t see how he has changed our lives, if they can’t see how we have died to our own sinful ways and are now living with Christ in us… if they can’t see that, then how can we expect anyone else to do what we can’t do.
Paul even said as much in his letter. He criticized Peter and others because they were asking Gentiles to do hard things they themselves were not doing.
All of this makes me think of Jesus when he said in Matthew 7:1-5,
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
We need to deal with our own personal sin first before we can expect others to let us help them with their sin.
If we are dealing with sin in our own lives, no matter how good we think we are at hiding it, it will negatively impact our ability to help others come to know Christ Jesus in their own lives.
So what do we do?
We let Christ live in us.
We welcome Jesus Christ into our lives fully, and surrender ourselves to his plan for us. We let him point out the things in our lives which are sinful and we let him restore us as children of God.
It’s that simple… but it’s also that hard.
I say it’s hard because, as I have mentioned, sin has become normalized in our society. All kinds of sin.
It’s now the norm to leave your spouse if things have gotten a little difficult and go find someone who makes you happy. Is this God’s plan? No, the Bible speaks quite clearly against this kind of thing.
There’s all sorts of ways God may need to transform our lives to live for Him.
What I may need to give up in my life may be different than what you have to give up.
But God wants us to get our own lives in order first, so that we can be full of the love He given to us in Jesus Christ, who died for our sin remember? And when we’re full of His love… others will take notice and want His love too.
Not in a judgemental, condemning way, that’s not how we’re going to bring people into the family of God.
Is that what we see at weddings? Do we see people screaming at one another about their flaws. Is that a good way to start a marriage? Of course not.
At weddings we see many different expressions of love and support as two people and their families come together.
It’s the same for the church. If we want people to become children of God, to be our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, then we need to love them with a love only God can give as we ourselves receive our Father’s love.
But first, we need to know that love for ourselves by giving up our control to Jesus Christ, the one who gives us light, love, and life forever more.
Would you pray with me?
What a gift of love you have brought from God for us. What a gift it is to know that you have given so freely of your own life so we may have a life in the presence of God, both here and now but also for all eternity.
Help us to be transformed by this love. Show us what we need to change in our lives so we may be passionate witnesses of God’s love to those who need it, those we wish to bring into your family beside us.
Lord Jesus, you have shown us in your life what it means to be in loving relationship with our Father in heaven and also with the world in which we live, just as you lived in this world.
Turn us away from our sin so we may turn to your love.
This we ask in your mighty name as our Lord and Saviour.
Amen and amen.